We had a show last Sunday night during the Grammys, but it was impossible to avoid all the commotion on-line. The big categories featured a lot of talent/quality, clear evidence that the voters still know what’s good without thinking too hard. Artists like Adele, The Black Keys, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons and Foo Fighters are good whether you like them or not–real artists that push their art forward over time, honing a real craft and delivering it live with authority. It seems impossible to miss the authenticity. But much of the buzz centered around some of the night’s more curious nominees/performers. Of course, the Grammys are totally subjective (and a total sham, depending who you ask) and thus totally insignificant in some way (it’s all just music after all). But they’re also not, and as a creative mind and a fan I can’t help wonder what this great spectacle means about the future of popular music.
In many ways the category of Best New Artist gives us the best look forward, not to mention being one of this year’s most interesting moments. Not everybody knows winner Bon Iver, but even though it was considered a total upset, he (Justin Vernon) is popular and growing fast. Much like the acts listed above, his music is unique and deep, totally authentic but definitely not ‘mainstream’ at all, with its sparing/distant drum grooves and ethereal vocals. Bon Iver’s relative obscurity is highlighted by the aptly titled tumblr Who Is Bon Iver? It’s hard to define ‘mainstream,’ but you DEFINITELY don’t fall into this category if your music is totally its own thing. What’s really interesting is to look at his competition: Skrillex, Nicky Minaj, The Band Perry and J Cole. These acts define the various sectors of the current mainstream, and its growing disconnect between popularity and quality. This year I think NARAS got it right, for whatever that’s worth.
Skrillex represents the hottest new trend on the live music scene: EDM (Electronic Dance Music). He’s leading a growing crop of artists that includes Deadmau5, Diplo and Tiesto–big names who blend the worlds of live performance with the DJ booth. They appear in front of huge crowds with huge production in a club like atmosphere, but what are they doing up there? It has little to do with performance in the classic sense, though they have had no problem connecting with MANY young fans, proving that the music clearly means something. But will it last? The trend is definitely fresh. Look at last year’s nominees for Best Dance Album (Rihanna, Goldfrapp, La Roux, Gaga and Robyn) and it’s 5 shades of the ‘dance’ sound we have been familiar with for years, while this year’s nominees represent the dubstep/DJ invasion, led by the winner in that category, Skrillex. Is that innovation? Maybe, but will the music last? Questionable. Do people even listen to that music when they are not raging the dancefloor? It’s loud and intense, usually characterized by software driven sub-sonic bass sounds, and climactic builds. Nothing organic about it and not a lot of fans who aren’t really young. The shelf life does not look promising.
Nicky Minaj is more than a mainstream fixture, appearing alongside Kanye and Jay-Z on Kanye’s new album/video, among other high-profile appearances in 2011. Together with J Cole (who I don’t know too much about), she represents the hip-hop world. But her performance was a disaster. It was all about an elaborate and goofy production (offensive by many standards, probably by design), while the song that should have been driving the performance was just awful! Seriously, the part where she sings ‘I feel pretty,’ by the confessional. Unreal. That’s on the Grammy stage? Again, the shelf life seems nonexistent.
The Band Perry is our representative from the increasingly curious world of country music. Lots of antiquated dreams around this scene, where success has largely remained synonymous with hits and record sales. Country music seems to have a longer shelf life on the surface, with fans ranging across a large age range (unlike EDM), but the current offerings no longer strive for the authenticity that put real ‘Country’ on the map. Today’s bands are so commercial it can be hard to take. It seems like the most lasting forms of this music might already be behind us. Taylor Swift’s banjo work didn’t help the cause.
Once upon a time, when music was just made with instruments/voices (and there was an industry that outlined a more clear path to success), quality and popularity went together with much more consistency. You may not have loved everything you heard, but the people making it were deeply devoted, and probably worked their ass off to get their music out there. No auto-tune, no computers, no editing, no interent publicity stunts, and thus not a lot of music that wasn’t real, that wasn’t ‘good.’ Today the playing field is very level, and while you can make deep/skilled music with computers in addition to using them for all kinds of exposure, they have also lowered the barrier to entry significantly. We all use them, but ‘mainstream’ standards have paid the price. Congrats and thanks to Bon Iver for representing quality in the middle of these brave new times. If the Grammys matter at all, it’s a good sign that the best music prevailed, a great sign for any talented people honing their craft over many long hours. Good music will last, but we don’t really need the Grammys to tell us this. It’s just promising to see that kind of recognition. It’s a sign that quality matters, and as we look ahead it’s definitely a good sign for the growing world of acoustic music…